This week, the recent frictions between Iran and Israel in Syria escalated as Iran, for the first time in its history, launched a direct attack of twenty rocket into Israel, targeting IDF bases on the Golan Heights. 16 of those rockets never made it past the border fence and fell inside the Syrian Golan, while 4 rockets were intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system while still over Syrian airspace. The escalation was expected as Israeli intelligence had been warning for a few days, and was seen as Iran's retaliation for Israel's bombing of the T-4 Airport in Syria a couple of weeks ago in which Iranian installations and personnel were targeted. Two days ago, the IDF ordered all air-raid shelters in the Golan to be opened and readied for an attack and the civilian population was prepared.
In retaliation to the direct attack by Iran against Israeli targets, in breach of international law, and although no damage was caused in Israel, the IDF immediately responded by a bombing campaign hitting fifty Iranian targets within Syria - logistics centers, intelligence centers, rocket launchers (including the launcher responsible for last night's attack), and air defense installations. Also among the targets were five Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries. According to Russian media reports, the attack was carried out by 28 Israeli Air Force jets (F-15 and F-16) dropping 60 bombs inside Syria. This was the largest-scale Israeli attack in Syria since the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
The targets destroyed by Israel are all part of Iran's infrastructure designed to allow Iran to build up a strong and significant presence in Syria. The attack on Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries ensures that the Israeli Air Force will continue to be able to operate in Syrian airspace in the future.
While the fifty targets in Syria were destroyed, care was taken by Israel to harm as few Iranians as possible in order to minimize Iran's desire to retaliate. Few casualties were reported. Clearly, the IDF had been collecting very precise data and information on all of Iran's assets in Syria and the plans for this attack were drawn up well in advance, ready to be implemented within a couple of hours of an Iranian attack. It is also apparent that the Israeli government and IDF made a deliberate decision to retaliate against Iran's (failed) attack with disproportionate force in order to make clear that red lines previously delineated by our government were enforced in a clear and forceful manner. It has been Israel's policy to deny Iran the ability to entrench itself in Syria and use the Syrian civil war as a platform to gain a stronger presence and foothold on Israel's borders. Last night's attack sends an unmistakable message to Iran - but also to Syria and to Russia - that Israel will do whatever it takes to deny Iran a presence so close to us.
Interestingly, Iran's attack came a few hours after Prime Minister Netanyahu concluded a one-day visit to Russia, where he had a long meeting with President Putin. Russia's involvement in the Syrian civil war in support of the Assad regime is well-known, as is Russia's public position on Iran's presence in Syria, defined by Russia as "an invited guest." Nevertheless, Russia has been coordinating its actions in Syria with Israel for years and one can imagine that Israel's major attack on Iran's installations last night was coordinated with Russia and possibly discussed by Netanyahu and Putin. While Russia agrees with Iran's presence in Syria, which fits Russia's agenda of fighting the rebels, fighting ISIS and propping up Assad, there is no love lost between Moscow and Tehran. Russia's tacit agreement (or at least lack of intervention) during Israel's attack on Iranian assets and previous attacks on weapons convoys in Syria suggests that Russia is not unhappy with Israel pummeling Iranian targets. In fact, Russia would like to play a hegemonic role in post-civil war Syria and will likely not want to share that role with Iran. It therefore does not bother Russia tremendously that Israel is pushing back against Iran's involvement in the war.
On the tactical level, it is of note that Iran actually failed in its attack on Israel. Just as the drone it launched into Israeli airspace earlier this year was a failure and was shot down by the Israeli Air Force upon entering our airspace, so last night's attack was a complete failure in tactical terms - 16 out of 20 rockets never made it past the border, and the remaining 4 were shot out of the sky before entering Israeli airspace. For Iran, that is a huge failure and a demoralizing event. It is therefore not surprising that a high-ranking Iranian official today said in a media interview that Iran has no military assets in Syria and no Iranian assets were hit by Israel. By denying connection to these fifty targets, Iran on the one hand tries to hide its humiliation and on the other hand keeps the "account" open for another day of retaliation against Israel, since they "never launched" twenty rockets. Denial of rocket launchings also allows Iran to avoid provoking European anger at a very delicate moment when Iran is doing all it can to keep the nuclear agreement intact - at least with the European powers and with Russia and China. This consideration probably will influence Iran's desire (or lack thereof) to launch another attack against Israel in the near future.
Another consideration that Iran needs to think about is the economic cost of rehabilitating its installations in Syria. It took more than a year to put together all these installations and stockpiles of rockets, missiles, drones and other materiel, at a considerable economic price. Rehabilitating all of its infrastructures in Syria will use up tens of millions of dollars or more - money that the Iranian regime can hardly afford at this moment, especially after the US pulled out of the nuclear agreement and Iran's currency took a huge plunge. If the regime does decide to allocate the funds needed to rehabilitate its presence in Syria, such an action will likely provoke a strong backlash in public opinion in Tehran as the population there is already very resentful of the economic price of intervention in Syria.
As far as Israel is concerned, the end game of our actions in Syria is clear and has been defined a long time ago: Israel will not allow Iran to acquire a significant presence in Syria which would (a) bring Iranian troops to Israel's doorstep, (b) provide Iran with a land bridge connecting Iran to the Mediterranean, and (c) allow Iran to offer ground support to Hezbollah. Israel has vowed to take all necessary measures to stop Iran from gaining a strong foothold in Syria, and there is no doubt that this policy will continue to guide Israel's actions in the arena. Yesterday's events are therefore a watershed moment: Iran for the first time attacks Israel directly (putting aside for a moment the failed drone attack), and Israel targets multiple Iranian targets inside Syria with total impunity. Deterrence has probably been achieved, though in Iran's case it will never be total. Iran has a toolbox of possible weapons to use against Israel, including long-range missiles, proxy organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and the ability to strike at Israeli diplomatic representations abroad, something Iran has done in the past. At the moment, though, there seems to be scarce desire on Iran's part to provoke Israel into an escalation, and last night's events will make that desire even scarcer. As a side note, I would add that the level of intelligence gathered by Israel in preparation for last night's attack was extremely high and serves as a further deterrent against future Iranian attacks from within Syrian territory.